Art Therapy

Art therapy involves the use of art to express feelings, emotions, and perceptions, and to facilitate healing through the creation, interpretation, and analysis of produced art, under the guidance of a trained and credentialed art therapist.

The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as “a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster selfawareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.” Art therapy encourages self-discovery, healing, and emotional growth. It is a two-part process, involving both the creation of art and the discovery of its meaning through a process of analysis and interpretation.

Although communication through creative media and the use of drawing, painting, and other forms of artistic self-expression have long been used in the process of psychotherapy, art therapy was only formalized as a specific therapeutic venue in the mid-1950s in the United States. Art therapy is based on the premise that visual symbols and images are the most accessible and natural form of communication to the human experience. Clients are encouraged to visualize and then create their thoughts and emotions rather than attempting to express them in spoken form. The resulting artwork is then reviewed and its meaning interpreted by the client, with the support and guidance of the art therapist. The analysis of the artwork typically enables the client to gain some level of insight into his feelings and allows him to work through these issues in a constructive manner. Art therapy is often practiced in conjunction with individual, group, or family psychotherapy, and may be used in inpatient, rehabilitation, or clinic/outpatient settings. While a therapist may provide critical guidance for these activities, an important feature of effective art therapy is that the client/artist, not the therapist, directs the interpretation of the artwork.

Historically, some mental health professionals have viewed the use of art in therapy as an effective diagnostic tool for the identification of specific types of mental illness or traumatic events. In the late nineteenth century, French psychiatrists Ambrose Tardieu and Paul-Max Simon published studies on the visual characteristics of and symbolism in the artwork of the mentally ill. They found that there were recurring themes and visual elements in the drawings of patients with specific types of mental illness.


Art therapy can be an especially useful treatment tool for young children, who often have limited language and communications skills. By drawing or visually expressing their feelings, even if they cannot identify or label the emotions, younger clients have a starting point from which to address these issues. Art therapy is also valuable for adolescents and adults who are unable or unwilling to verbalize thoughts and feelings. It is often used with clients who have speech disorders of spoken communication.

This retirement home houses people suffering from Alzheimer's disease and related dementia. The art therapy workshops are run by Mr. Sari, a painter and art therapist.

This retirement home houses people suffering from Alzheimer's disease and related dementia. The art therapy workshops are run by Mr. Sari, a painter and art therapist.
(© Amelie-Benoist/BSIP/BSIP/Corbis)

Although art therapy has traditionally centered on visual media such as sculpture, drawing, and painting, some behavioral healthcare providers/art therapists have expanded the definition to include digital media, video, music, film, dance, writing, and other artistic genres.


  1. Self-discovery: Art therapy strives to trigger an emotional catharsis (a sense of relief and well-being through the recognition and acknowledgement of subconscious feelings).
  2. Personal fulfillment: The creation of a tangible product can build confidence and enhance feelings of self-esteem and self-worth. Personal fulfillment comes from both the creative and the analytical components of the art therapy process.
  3. Empowerment: Art therapy can facilitate the individuals’ visual expression of emotions and traumatic experiences that they were previously unable to articulate through more traditional means, giving them a sense of control over these feelings.
  4. Relaxation and stress reduction: Chronic stress is physically and psychologically harmful. It can weaken and damage the immune system, cause insomnia and depressed mood, and trigger a host of physical problems, particularly circulatory problems (e.g., high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and cardiac arrhythmia). When used alone or in combination with other relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, physical exercise programs, progressive relaxation, and guided imagery, art therapy can be a very effective means of relieving stress.
  5. Symptom relief and physical rehabilitation: Art therapy may help individuals cope with chronic and intractable pain and promote physical healing by identifying and working through grief and loss, anger and resentment issues, and other emotional stresses.

See also Catharsis ; Creativity ; Draw-a-person test ; Psychotherapy ; Stress .



Dolphin, Matt, et al. Psychodynamic Art Therapy Practice with People on the Autistic Spectrum. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Gilroy, Andrea. Art Therapy Research in Practice. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011.

Gilroy, Andrea, et al. Assessment in Art Therapy. London: Routledge, 2012.

Howie, Paula, et al. Using Art Therapy with Diverse Populations: Crossing Cultures and Abilities. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2013.

Malchiodi, Cathy A. Art Therapy and Health Care. New York: Guilford Press, 2013.

Malchiodi, Cathy A. Handbook of Art Therapy. New York: Guilford Press, 2012.

McNeilly, Gerry, et al. The Changing Shape of Art Therapy: New Developments in Theory and Practice. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley, 2011.

Shore, Annette. The Practitioner's Guide to Child Art Therapy: Fostering Creativity and Relational Growth. New York: Routledge, 2013.


Feldman, Matthew B., et al. “Process and Outcome Evaluation of an Art Therapy Program for People Living with HIV/AIDS.” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association 31, no. 3 (September 2014): 102–09.


American Art Therapy Association. “About Us.” (accessed September 4, 2015).

“Art Therapy: Inspiring Others to Create With Expressive Arts.” (accessed September 4, 2015).